As children, we read illustrated books all the time. Many of my most distinct memories of books read in childhood are of their pictures. Hercules in the blind rage of a bad dream, club in hand, running into the darkness of murder. The White Witch frog-marching Edmund through Narnia. Max cavorting with the Wild Things. In my young eyes the pictures were as important as the words, and I would gaze at them, taking in every detail. Their beautiful stasis was enchanting.
But there’s something in the adult psyche that is disdainful of pictures in books of fiction or poetry. A book containing illustrations is often considered less challenging a read than one without, as if words are puzzles and pictures their solutions. To look at pictures is to cheat at the reading test. Furthermore, novels for adults are usually published without illustrations, perhaps because words can convey places, characters and situations on their own. If a paragraph of description can create a London street, why commission an artist to draw it? Indeed, a line drawing might be reductive or so different from the vision of the mind’s eye as to diminish the reader’s enjoyment.
If literary works are better off without illustrations, they can be enhanced by non-illustrative pictures, images that offer something distinct from the sum total of the words next to which they are placed. Words and pictures can speak to each other and us simultaneously in their own languages. Or, to put it another way, the reader’s intellect and imagination are set free in the wide space between text and image. I could cite dozens of examples of books for adults in which this is the case: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive, Jindřich Heisler’s From the Strongholds of Sleep, Alex Garland’s The Coma, W G Sebald’s novels…
We must add Wordless to this list. It is an unassuming book, modest in dimensions and length, in which Kevin Reid’s photographs of a bowler hat and a white mask in various locations are accompanied by some laconic prose poems by George Szirtes. The collaborators take us into the flickering dreamworld of silent movies; the artfully degraded monochrome photographs are juxtaposed with texts printed in white on near-black with framing decorations, like captions. Indeed, much of the book’s charm lies in its deliberate quaintness, evident also in the image of the bowler hat and Szirtes’ occasionally old-fashioned turn-of-phrase:
One should always be astonished at such things.
Anyone familiar with Szirtes’ work on Twitter will recognise here the thoughtful, sometimes arch voice of his tweets. He delights in everyday language, finding elegant new possibilities in idioms and cliches:
We ate our hats and still we were hungry.
Szirtes wrote his miniatures in response to Reid’s subtly disquieting photographs; text illustrates or elaborates on image (rather than vice-versa) in a book that explores the polarities of male and female, sex and death, presence and absence. It’s interesting how a simple white mask and a bowler hat suggest characters and emotional states; Reid plays on our anthropomorphic imagination and our desire to find meaning in the strange. Like Szirtes, he has a sense of humour: in one picture the hat is placed on top of a toilet, transforming the object into a comical character. In another, a fork on one side and a knife on the other turn the hat into a plate. Through the simplest means, in a visual language as understated as the verbal language of his collaborator, Reid, like Szirtes, finds whimsy and poetry in the everyday.
Wordless began as an online project, and you can still see the whole sequence here. But I recommend you buy the book, which makes for a more satisfying reading experience. Holding the little paperback and poring over its pictures and words is a pleasure that will bring out the child in you. You can buy it here.